When two sworn and once-powerful enemies are in trouble, what do they do? Become friends, of course.
These are strange times for Pakistan. A military government announces a grassroots democracy plan and a local elections schedule, and a powerful former prime minister is convicted of corruption and disqualified from politics for 21 years. But most of all, a de facto end to the political careers of the country’s two best-known politicians—Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
A clever little amendment in the Political Parties Act by the military government means that not only can the convicted persons not take part in general elections, they can’t even hold office in a political party. But Bhutto and Sharif are likely to be not the only victims. Influential Minister for Local Government, Omar Asghar, said at a recent seminar that “thousands of politicians” might be disqualified to give Pakistan a clean leadership for the future. Thousands! Whew!
The chief ‘disqualifying machinery’ is the dreaded National Accountability Bureau with the sinister acronym of NAB. A senior official of NAB confided that as many as half of the 600 politicians who contested the last general elections in 1997, may be declared ineligible from contesting for public office because they have filed in inaccurate statements of their assets and properties. “We have checked the statements filed with the Election Commission by most of the candidates who were elected to National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies and are not surprised to see that they are mostly grossly inaccurate,” he said. Government officials say all political parties will have to elect new leaders who neither have been convicted in a court of law nor have any criminal cases pending, thus paving the way for a “third force”.
An official of the Election Com-mission said the body was engaged in drafting tough electoral reforms that would make past offenders ineligible from contesting polls. “The amendment in the Political Parties Act will not only stop violators of the law from holding a public office, it will also prevent them from being eligible from holding party office,” he said. He also said that among those who “stand automatically disqualified” considering their convictions by courts of law, include Bhutto and Sharif. Both heavy-weights of Pakistani politics have also been convicted in different cases of corruption and gross misuse of power, and sentenced by the courts.
Sharif, for example, was in early August convicted of violating the country’s tax laws by concealing the ownership of a helicopter in his wealth declarations. In line with the accountability law, he was given the maximum punishment-14 years rigorous imprisonment and banned from taking part in politics for 21 years. He was also fined PNR 20 million (USD 40,000). Earlier this year, he was jailed for life on two counts of attempted hijacking and terrorism by an anti-terrorism court. The charges stemmed from the dramatic events of 12 October 1999 when the army chief General Pervez Musharraf’s plane was denied landing at Karachi airport after being mysteriously sacked. In the stand-off that ensued, the military toppled the government in a bloodless coup and seized power. Sharif was arrested and has been in jail since.
Then there is the never-say-die Bhutto who is now in exile, and facing arrest on setting foot on Pakistani soil. In a case filed by the Sharif government early last year, she was convicted by the Lahore High Court of accepting kickbacks worth millions of dollars in allotment of government contracts during her days in power. She, along with her husband Asif Zardari, was sentenced to five years in jail, fined USD eight million and disqualified from politics.
As soon as the ban on convicts from holding public and party offices was announced, a strange thing happened. Not many had thought they would see it happen and it was a sight to behold. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and arch rival Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) got together formally on one platform for the first time ever. Bitter foes of yesterday, compelled friends of today.
The venue was the meeting of the noisy and rickety 42-party All Par-ties Conference (APC) convened by the granddaddy of Pakistani politics—the evergreen Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan—to discuss resto-ration of democracy. While the meeting’s overt symbolism—the first broad, united political alliance against the present military government—was not lost on anyone, it’s other, more relevant significance was stark too: it has led to an alliance between the two largest and the most influential parties of the country, which between them have come to power through democratic elections six times and given the nation four prime ministers: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mohammed Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
The conference was also the first time in the political career of de-posed premier Sharif that he allowed his party to sit with Bhutto’s PPP. Not all have forgotten him repeatedly saying that Bhutto and her party were security risks for the country. And of course, it is all together too early to forget that the PPP actually had greeted the ouster of the Sharif government ten months ago hollering with joy, its leaders actually distributing sweets. Not many in Pakistan thought the party that symbolised resistance against military rule, would actually be welcoming a military coup.
Whatever the outcome of the flirtation between the PPP and the PML, the coming together of Bhutto and Sharif’s parties does indicate the first major shift—some would term it a sea change—in Pakistani politics in a decade. For the past decade, the four Bhutto and Sharif governments, alternating every two and a half years on an average, have outdone each other by way of misrule and poor governance. There is little to choose between their 1990s and the 1980s presided over by military dictator General Ziaul Haq, as far as people’s progress and prosperity are concerned.
Sharif’s dalliance with the PPP is easily explained—he more than anyone else knew that he had little mass support and that senior party leaders had left him in the lurch, and there was nothing else left to do but to mend fences with other parties, especially his arch-rival Bhutto’s PPP, to keep himself politically alive. In a letter written from jail read out to a high-level party meeting, Sharif said the political set-up in the country must have the full participation of Benazir Bhutto. This coming from a man whose one pet hatred was Benazir, whom he did not even grant an audience the two times he was in power. What’s more, Bhutto returned the favour by urging the military not to decide the future of the country without consulting both her and Sharif!
As far as Bhutto and Sharif go, it is a case of ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’. No wonder then that some other leading politicians are not amused. Here’s what Imran Khan has to say about the Bhutto-Sharif political tete-a-tete: “The Sharif-Bhutto alliance is nothing but an insult to the people’s sensibilities because they haven’t forgotten the serious allegations the two have been levelling against each other and processing corruption cases in courts against each other. Sharif was convicted for corruption last month in a case actually filed by the Bhutto government, and Bhutto was convicted for corruption last year in case filed by the Sharif government.”
Former president Farooq Leghari is equally sceptical. He says the PML and the PPP have “cleverly manipulated” the smaller parties in order to get together and gain political legitimacy. Leghari calls them “strange bedfellows” who are driven by the ulterior motive of escaping from the noose of the law.
But even this last bid at restoring lost glory seems a futile effort, at least for some time in the future. General Musharraf s government is firmly in control, and faces no problems in setting its own pace for returning to democracy, which is the Supreme Court-sanctioned three-year period. Meanwhile, the he and she of Pakistani politics can sweat it out in friendship.